It’s time for meeting professionals to strategize, not hide. Speaking at the Sixth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum in Philadelphia, Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Martiz Travel, took issue with the way many companies initially responded when meetings came under media fire in late 2008. “Hoping the press doesn’t take notice of your event is not a strategy,” said Duffy in her keynote address at the forum, which is co-organized by Medical Meetings and the Center for Business Intelligence and runs March 14–16.

Her advice to the 800 planners and suppliers in attendance: Experiment with meaningful and different meetings that address the shift in cultural values. Make them defensible. Collect data to prove the value of meetings.

The shift will require a change in the way meeting managers operate. Planners traditionally have been evaluated on whether they come in under budget for a meeting rather than whether the meeting provided a return on investment and return on objective, said Duffy. By managing the end-to end process of the meeting—before, during, and after—rather than just the event itself, planners will see better outcomes. “We have to be able to measure ROI, and we have to be able to engage participants actively in program design, delivery, and impact. That is the only way we create a more defensible position [for this industry],” she noted.

There is a direct link between engaged employees and satisfied customers, she added, which ultimately results in bottom-line success. By establishing metrics that illustrate that link, said Duffy, CEOs “will be able to point to all the reasons why meetings matter, meetings mean business, and especially in this environment, meetings mean growth.”

Another new strategy for many companies will be to hold more virtual meetings. Duffy cited data from Market Research Media that shows that the virtual conference and trade show market has more than doubled from 2008 to 2009, and that growth is expected to increase by 56 percent year over year through 2015. However, she was quick to note that technology is not a replacement for face-to-face events. “I don’t think the idea of a virtual incentive trip to Hawaii gets too many sales people motivated. There is still a need to bring people together [face-to-face].”

Duffy’s prediction: More companies will be looking at virtual meetings technology as a way to extend the conference message to people who were not invited or were unable to attend. “We will see more blended or hybrid events,” she said.

Meanwhile, Duffy has been a strong and active voice on Capitol Hill, advocating for the meetings and travel industry. The past year has been an eye-opening experience, she said. “It was a big shock to sit down with policymakers in Washington who had no idea what we do.”

She cited a study conducted last summer by the U.S. Travel Association that polled opinion leaders in Washington, D.C. When it comes to advancing policy in Washington, travel and tourism was ranked as having the lowest influence among seven umbrella industries. The financial industry was ranked the highest.

Other findings from the study:

  • Fully 70 percent of respondents underestimate the number of people employed by the travel industry, but know it is large.
  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe leisure travel is frivolous, while a full two-thirds see business travel as “necessary.”
  • Sixty-one percent believe the travel industry is taken less seriously because of its link to “fun and entertainment.”

Despite the success Duffy and groups such as U.S. Travel have had in influencing legislation, the battle isn’t over. By repositioning the meetings and travel industry, Duffy said, “we will be better prepared to respond when the next crisis happens—and it will.” She urged attendees to contact their local congressmen and express how much this industry matters. She also noted that U.S. Travel has formed a new council that is focused on meetings, events, and trade shows, and will be working to prove that meetings help to create jobs and impact top-line business growth.